Against A Scarred Landscape, Haitians Persevere
Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. The quake killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.
One year later, the effects of the quake are everywhere. Rubble still covers much of the capital. More than 1 million people remain in improvised huts in makeshift encampments.
Some progress is being made in Haiti, but it's coming slowly.
The Jan. 12 earthquake hit a country unaccustomed to and unprepared for seismic activity. The violent shaking of historic proportions destroyed the National Palace. It snapped the neck of the airport's control tower. It toppled the piers at the port into the harbor. Cinder block houses disintegrated, leaving Port-au-Prince shrouded in a gray, powdery cloud of dust.
Scale Of Disaster Difficult To Comprehend
A year later, parts of the city still appear post-apocalyptic. The damage both physical and psychological is everywhere.
Renold Pierre, 36, didn't just lose his house.
"This picture you can see here, my children. Both of them died in the earthquake," he says.
Pierre's sons were 2 and 4 years old when the quake hit. The photo shows two round-cheeked boys propped on the hood of a parked car.
Back in January, a woman who was trying to excavate one of her relatives from a collapsed office building told NPR, "There isn't a family in Haiti that isn't crying right now."
Almost a year later, the tears don't flow quite so freely, but they well up in Pierre's eyes as he gazes at the snapshot of the children he lost.
Reginald Boulos, the head of the Haitian Chamber of Commerce, says it's still hard to comprehend the scale of this disaster.
"Given the proportion of the destruction -- 200,000, 300,000 people dead, over, what, 2 million people -- 10 percent of the population. Imagine any city in the U.S. where 10 percent of the population [died] overnight. People don't realize, I think; [they] underestimate what this catastrophe was," he says.
Boulos agrees that the recovery has been slow, but sometimes he feels outsiders are asking too much of this impoverished nation. He recalls how on the day after the quake he was negotiating with the minister of finance to release shipping containers of food that were trapped on the docks.
"This minister had just buried his son who'd died in the earthquake. And he was there working with us. This is not highlighted enough -- of the resilience, the dignity, the courage people showed after the earthquake," Boulos says.
Hardships For Homeless Go On
The Finance Ministry's headquarters, like most government buildings, lay in ruins. Debris blocked the streets.
With more than 200,000 people dead, one of the first tasks was just to dispose of the bodies, many of which were dumped in mass graves. Others were burned in the streets.
Within days, encampments sprang up anywhere there was open space. People built shacks out of sheets, tarps, cardboard and scraps of wood. And a year later, most of them are still living in the same chaotic settlements.
At a camp called La Piste, 50,000 people live on what used to be the military airport. Shops and simple restaurants have sprung up among the shacks. People bathe in the open, splashing water from plastic buckets. Kids scamper in every direction. Even small casinos have popped up where you can wager a few coins on a carnival-style roulette table.
In front of Terese Basil's rusting sheet metal shack, a dumpster overflows with garbage.
"The trash is a problem for everyone in the camp. They come sometimes and pick up the trash, but they don't do it often," she says.
Just behind Basil's house, Jean Yvonne's shelter is a patchwork of tarps stretched over a frame of sticks. The hut is just large enough for a single bed, which Yvonne shares with his wife and four kids.
Yvonne has no regular work. He says every morning he goes out and tries to find a way to feed his kids. But his life is stuck. And he says he has no idea when he'll leave the camp, when he'll move back into a regular home.
Not Just Rebuilding, But Transformation
Despite more than 10,000 relief agencies working in the country and international donors pledging billions of dollars to reconstruct Haiti, most of the country hasn't yet gotten to reconstruction.
In some neighborhoods the process of clearing the rubble has barely begun. In others men with sledgehammers demolish houses one swing at a time.
Most of the debris that has been removed has been shoveled by work crews into trucks. Bulldozers cleared some parts of downtown, but these barren plots are mainly where government offices once stood. Schools have reopened, but in temporary plywood classrooms.
As of November, aid agencies had built no new permanent housing in the Port-au-Prince area. And nationwide, fewer than 20,000 transitional shelters had been constructed for the roughly 1.5 million people displaced by the quake.
Nigel Fisher, the United Nations' coordinator for humanitarian affairs in Haiti, says it's not fair to say that nothing has been accomplished over the past year.
"The challenges are huge, and what people need to realize is that we are not just rebuilding after an earthquake," he says.
Walking through Ravine Pintade, a steep ravine in Port-au-Prince that's now a field of rubble, Fisher says even before the quake, most Haitians lacked access to clean water, proper sewage facilities and health care.
"We are not rebuilding, because what existed for most poverty-stricken Haitians before was totally unacceptable. It's building, it's transformation, and that's going to take a long time," Fisher says.
Making things more difficult, the cholera epidemic that hit in October has diverted resources away from the earthquake recovery effort and killed more than 3,000 people.
Hope And Determination Amid Destruction
Haiti is on life support, with international donors scrambling just to provide the very basics: water, tarps for shelter, bare-bones health care.
"Haiti is doing ... what Haiti regularly does," says Richard Widmaier, head of Radio Metropole, an independent radio and television network in Port-au-Prince.
"Haitians get up every morning, and they just try to live off whatever they have. They work; they are hard workers. And they try to reconstruct, those who can. And it's just their daily living in the circumstances they are [in] right now," he says.
The scars of last year's earthquake remain everywhere.
At the Christ the King church, people gather for Mass inside the shell of what was once their grand cathedral. Only the outer walls of the church survived. Tentacles of rebar and jagged concrete buttresses reach toward the heavens. Like so many people in Port-au-Prince, the pastor says he has no idea when he'll be able to rebuild.
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